October 10, 1999

The Playing Fields of Hogwarts


As a boy, I went for many years to the Dragon School in Oxford. The rooms in which we lived were called ''Leviathan'' and ''Pterodactyl'' and ''Ichthyosaurus''; the men who instructed us in dead languages were (through some arcane local custom) known always by their nicknames -- ''Guv'' and ''Plum'' and ''Inky.'' A few of the boys at the school, and they were nearly all boys, had come there from the Squirrel School, down the street; and once we'd mastered our secret runes, we would proceed, as Old Dragons, to another medieval castle, full of dungeons and towers, where boys in black robes, called ''praepostors'' (the word is the source of our own ''preposterous''), would sweep into classrooms at 11:40 each morning to summon malefactors to the headmaster's study.

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I mention all this because, as Harry Potter's adventures conquer the nation (''I wouldn't be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter day in the future,'' J. K. Rowling writes, with wizardly prescience, in the first chapter of the first book), readers on this side of the Atlantic may not appreciate how much there is of realism, as well as magic, in the exotic tales of young sorcerers being trained at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The classical boarding-school process favored by the English middle classes is esoteric -- in fact, mad -- to the point of resembling some Charms School for apprentice mages. The main languages we learned, from the ages of 7 to 14, were ones that had been out of use for 2,000 years or more, and Friday nights would find us bouncing up and down in our pajamas, reciting the principal parts of Greek irregular verbs. Every Sunday night, in our flowing black robes (we were known as ''tugs''), we would gather in a classroom dating from 1441 to sing hymns in Latin, and whenever we passed a ''beak'' -- i.e., a teacher -- in the street, we were allowed to greet him only by raising one solemn finger silently into the air. What movies like ''Heathers'' (or novels like ''The Virgin Suicides'') are to the American experience of growing up, the Harry Potter books, I suspect, are to the English.

The heart of magic realism is that if you describe the features of one culture to another, radically different, they will seem as strange and wonderful as fairy tale: the people of Aracataca, in Colombia, doubtless read much of Garcia Marquez as if it were the local newspaper; and my own mother treats the fantastications of Salman Rushdie's imagination as an unfailingly accurate account of day-to-day life in the Bombay of her youth. What J. K. Rowling has done, with considerable charm and inventive brio, is to take the traditional rituals of English public schools and show them in a light in which they seem as curious to outsiders as the rites of passage of tribal Africa. She makes it easy to overlook the fact that the most visible character going through Harry Potter's training even now is Harry Windsor.

For those who passed through these eccentric playgrounds, though, much in the Harry Potter universe can seem as familiar, and even as nostalgic, as passages in Cyril Connolly's "Enemies of Promise." Here are all the rites I remember as vividly as lemon drops: the cryptic list of instructions that would appear through the mail, describing what we must -- and mustn't -- bring to school (the point of all the rules being not to make order so much as to enforce obedience); the trip to dusty old shops with creaky family names -- New & Lingwood or Alden & Blackwell -- where aged men would fit us out with the approved uniform and equipment, as they had done for our fathers and our fathers' fathers; the special school train that would be waiting in a London station to transport us to our cells. Once the doors clanged shut behind us, we knew we were inside an alternative reality where none of the usual rules applied -- and where there was only one sex, everyone wore tails every day and it was assumed that every boy would partake of Anglican worship twice a day.

It is precisely through the accumulation of such details that Rowling casts her spell, the names of her boys ringing out like hoofs on cobblestones -- Crabbe and Goyle and Longbottom and Finch-Fletchley. (Many, in fact, are so nasty, brutish and short -- Boot and Peeves and Weasley -- that they sound like the product of Beowulf's liaison with Grendel's mother.) And even if Hogwarts didn't have a Latin motto on its crest involving dragons, even if it didn't have cruel little boys talking airily of the ''wrong sort'' and mocking anyone without the right family connections, I would be back in that realm of sick bays and tuck-shops where we mumbled the Lord's Prayer in Latin and thought it strange that some children didn't run a steeplechase through Agar's Plough.

One could even say that the stranger the detail in Rowling's world, the closer it is to something everyday to us as gruel. Harry plays Quidditch, a peculiar game featuring ''Bludgers'' and ''Chasers'' and ''Quaffles''; we had three brutal sports not played in any other school, the most savage of which had ''walls'' and ''behinds'' and no official goal scored since 1909. At Harry's school, inscrutably, ''the third-floor corridor on the right-hand side is out of bounds''; at Eton, we were not allowed to walk on one side of the main road through town (for reasons that were not forthcoming). As for ghosts, we ate and slept and studied around busts and portraits and the scribbled desktop signatures of Gladstone, Wellington and Pitt the Elder.


"I was halfway through a novel for adults at the time, and out of nowhere, it just fell from above. Harry came fully formed. Really, it was weird. Basically, the idea was for a boy to make weird stuff happen all his life and never know why."

-- J. K. Rowling in an article from The New York Times, Apr. 1, 1999.

Behind all this, of course, there is a somewhat sinister clannishness that makes all these private academies seem like secret societies -- the English version of Skull and Bones -- designed to train the elite in a system that other mortals cannot follow. When I was at school, it was always assumed that all the years of quasi-military training (''Hard work and pain are the best teachers if you ask me,'' the Hogwarts caretaker says) were meant to teach us how to rule the Empire and subdue the natives around the world. When we graduated, however, we found that the Empire was gone, and the only natives visible were ourselves.

Yet Rowling's genius in the Harry Potter books -- perhaps because she attended no boarding school herself -- is to recast these qualities in a positive light, and to suggest that her children are privileged in some way deeper than the social (Harry, a loser in real life, becomes a hero as soon as he enters the parallel world of wizards). We are never very far here from the never-never worlds of Wodehouse (a resident ghost at Hogwarts is called Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington) or Waugh, and we are certainly close to the Molesworth books that we used to devour in our turrets. But Rowling does manage to slip a girl or two into the proceedings, and even one named Parvati Patil. And in this book at least, it is the baddie who announces, ''There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.''

One reason England has always been fertile ground for children's classics, I think, is precisely the fact that its training grounds are so ruled by dotty traditions and cobwebbed terms. Lewis Carroll and J. R. R. Tolkien looked around them, at Oxford's eccentric dons and the gargoyles above its chapels, and came up with the Mad Hatter and Bilbo Baggins; C. S. Lewis opened up a wardrobe near the Dragon School and discovered Narnia. What makes the Harry Potter books fly, so to speak, is not so much their otherworldiness as their fidelity to the way things really are (or were, at least, when quills and parchment were still more common than computers): wizards, Harry Potter's world suggests, are only regular Muggles who've been to the right school.

There is a kind of writing for children, often misnamed ''fantasy,'' that starts from something universal and speaks to some mythic core in us; there is another kind, of which Harry Potter is a grand exemplar, that simply tweaks the particular in a magical direction. That is why the figures in Ursula K. Le Guin's ''Wizard of Earthsea'' (inspired in part by the author's knowledge of Native American lore) seem to spring from some deep place inside the collective imagination; Harry Potter, by contrast, is more likely to be spotted at King's Cross, waiting for the train back to Hogwarts on the platform that, to the discerning eye at least, is numbered, surprisingly, ''Nine and Three-Quarters.''

Pico Iyer is the author, most recently, of ''Tropical Classical.'' His new book, ''The Global Soul,'' will be published this winter.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company